"When we went to Mexico, we saw ourselves as the missionaries. What we discovered is that we are the mission field."
That's how my friend and veteran IM missionary Chuck Shawver put it, when we were together this summer. His words have stuck with me. They capture something important about my own experience, too. It was true in El Salvador, where we lived in the 1980s. It has been true in the many places I have visited and served since then. It is true in Valley Forge.
I see it also, over and over, in Scripture. God sends messengers, people called both to carry and to embody a message for the sake of others. But God is always also at work in and on those very messengers, calling them more deeply into the message they carry. From Abraham's encounter with Abimelech (Genesis 20) to Peter's experience with Cornelius (Acts 10)--and at many points in between--the missionaries discover they are also the mission field.
This dimension of our walk with the Lord came up again last night in Dover, Delaware, during a conversation with the good folks of Dover's First Baptist Church. We touched on the global context of mission today, and the dynamics at work in the worldwide Christian movement. But we focused primarily on the practice of mission, whether our mission service takes us across an ocean or across the street: we are always both agents and objects of mission, both instruments God is using and clay that the Divine Potter is shaping and filling with the treasure of the gospel.
I have come to love the spot in his letter to the believers in Rome, where Paul catches and corrects himself on this very point: "For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you--or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine" (Romans 1:11-12).
Missionary or mission field? Paul saw himself as both.
May the Lord give us grace always to see ourselves this way, too. It is a wonderful thing to be used by God. It is a humbling, but no less wonderful thing, to be a work in progress. It is normal--but not for being "normal," any less wonderful--to be both.
Last weekend I bought some tea at the Hy-Vee supermarket on the west side of Ames, Iowa. What a mess. The parking lot is torn up. The inside of the building has temporary walls all over the place. There are many, many clear vinyl sheets hanging about, to keep the dust of construction activities away from the food they are selling. But, they are, indeed, selling food. Lots and lots of it. There's more food under that roof and surrounded by those plastic drapes than in many a small village around the world. That supermarket is clearly both "on the job" and "under construction." Just like me.
Thanks for your partnership in the gospel. Whether today finds you feeling more like an "under construction" mission field today, or more like an "on the job" missionary, may you take heart in the calling to be both.